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Easy Does It
Richard Hoffer
May 31, 1999
Tim Duncan's seemingly effortless dismantling of the Lakers shows that he's now the league's dominant big man
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May 31, 1999

Easy Does It

Tim Duncan's seemingly effortless dismantling of the Lakers shows that he's now the league's dominant big man

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Duncan won't contribute to this resume of idiosyncrasy, preferring to speak in vague generalities about his life, keeping a distance from his public. Told that Daniels thinks of him as a "big kid," Duncan dismisses the idea. "I behave like a kid just enough, no more." he says. "When I'm away from basketball, I'm the biggest kid. I do a good job of keeping myself sane. But on the other hand, I'm more of a solitary guy, glad to be left alone."

This squares with what appears on the court but not with what is heard off it. "Solitary?" says Daniels. "He busts into my room on road trips, and if there's a basketball game on, he makes me turn to wrestling. We're in each other's rooms hours a day, watching TV and laughing."

According to forward Malik Rose, Duncan is a sort of dime store psychologist who walks from player to player wherever the team happens to be, trying to root out each guy's unhappiness. "He tries to probe my psyche?" says Rose. "Please! I was at Drexel [an inner-city college]. That might work with Antonio [who attended, er, rustic Bowling Green], not me." The Spurs, evidently, get a different face than the rest of us do. "Just 'cause he can do a 360 with a straight face doesn't mean he's not fun," says Rose.

Inevitably, Duncan's composure comes to be regarded as a lack of commitment, which gets all his teammates in an uproar and even causes Duncan's eyes to get big. "It's just my natural composure," says Duncan, mildly irritated. "That makes me soft?"

Elie, who joined San Antonio this season after spending five years with the Houston Rockets, where composure is highly unnatural (ever see Charles Barkley with a straight face?), was unnerved at first and, after the Spurs got off to a 6-8 start, piped up about Duncan's softness. "Thought opponents were moving my man around too much," says Elie, who has since come to understand, especially as San Antonio finished the regular season with a 31-5 run, that "there is nobody more focused or fiercer than Tim when it comes to basketball."

Duncan's lack of visible excitement doesn't mean diffidence either. He came into a lineup that already featured one of the NBA's alltime nifty 50—Robinson, No. 50 himself—and quickly established himself as the Man. "Tim doesn't defer to anybody," Popovich says. In short order the Admiral was sent below decks, where he has been baking pies in the ship's galley, and Duncan became everybody's first mate.

That this worked has more to do with the Admiral's demeanor than Duncan's. His role reduced, his minutes and shots decreased, Robinson nonetheless has come to grasp the beauty of his and Duncan's two-pronged attack and no longer worries about his scoring average, which went from 21.6 last year to 15.8 this season. "It was frustrating at first after a lifetime of getting all the shots I wanted," says Robinson, a 10-year veteran. "I've taken a different, not lesser, role. Now I set the tone, get the rebounds, block the shots. You know, Bill Russell didn't argue with Red Auerbach about how many points he was supposed to get."

Unlike Robinson to this point in his career, Russell won a lot of NBA titles. Robinson, who sacrificed himself through much of the Lakers' series (he was in constant foul trouble, hammering Shaq), understands what Duncan brings to the Spurs. "I haven't spent one minute talking to either about his role," says Popovich. 'They just want to win."

It may be unfair to contrast the Spurs, with their dispassionate duo, and the more flamboyant Lakers. It's not as if Los Angeles is all style and no substance. O'Neal has to be the hardest worker in the league. And Bryant, who at times seems to be dallying on the margins of egocentric basketball, is improving as a team player. When observers complain that he's clueless, it's hard to argue against them, except to say, You should have seen him last year. For all the faults of Shaq and Kobe, their talent is a bromide that settles many a front-office stomach.

Yet one of those front-office stomachs, the one belonging to Lakers executive vice president Jerry West, was pretty upset following Sunday's loss. L.A. had a confused season, as any season that included Dennis Rodman would be, but its strong finish in the regular season and its waltz past the geriatric Rockets in the playoffs' first round promised better than this. Or seemed to. Realistically, it was put to West, might this have been just about what you expected? "Maybe," he said.

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